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Floor Heating Systems 101 | Installation, Cost & How They Work

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A floor heating system is the go-to solution for homeowners who live in areas that experience harsh winters.

We are all familiar with the struggle of stepping out of bed on a freezing winter morning. And traditional heaters can only be used to add warmth to some regions of the house. Even if you use it in the bedroom to ensure you get a night of sound sleep, what happens when you go to the bathroom or the kitchen?

A floor heating system makes for a better alternative to heat the entire house. But if you aren’t familiar with it, don’t worry – this guide has all the information you need to know.

Floor Heating Systems 101 Guide

Electrician installing heating electrical cable on cement floor. energy-saving technologies for home comfort

For the sake of brevity, we have divided this comprehensive guide into six parts – types, cost, installation, how does it work, pros, and cons.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

Types

Before talking about anything else, we want you to understand the different types of floor heating systems you will find out there. Based on the heat-carrying medium, it can be classified into air-heated, electric, and hydronic systems. Let’s take a closer look at each of these types.

Air-Heated Systems

Radiant air heating systems are not the most effective of the lot; hence they aren’t used as much today as they were in the past. Although you may combine an air-heated system with solar air heating, it will only generate heat during the daytime, making it somewhat redundant.

The primary reason for its inefficiency is the fact that air cannot hold a lot of heat. So it is not cost-effective for the majority of homeowners.

To cut a long story short, we advise you to steer clear of air-heated systems and consider either of the next two types.

Electric Systems

When it comes to electric floor heating systems, you will get two options. The most common kind of electric system consists of cables built directly into the floor. Alternatively, subfloor-mounted mats of electrically conductive plastic may be used.

We strongly recommend using an electric system if these two conditions hold good for you:

  • Your floor includes a significant thermal mass, like a thick concrete slab
  • Your electric company provides time-of-use rates

Because of the relatively high electricity costs, these floor heating systems would not be cost-effective for each one of you. Moreover, it can only be used with floating-type floorings such as laminates and engineered hardwood.

As such, an electric system is rarely used as the sole heat source for an entire home. You can use it as an add-on system in a room, but that may turn out to be costly as well.

Radiant Floor Heating Installation Heating System. Floor heating installation.

Hydronic Systems

A hydronic system is amongst the most widely used and cost-effective floor heating options. It involves a simple underfloor tubing mechanism and a boiler. The boiler heats water to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is then circulated through the tubes.

We recommend using a hydronic heating system because of its versatility. You can install it in several ways and cover it with any kind of finished flooring, such as carpeting, vinyl, or hardwood strip flooring.

Some hydronic systems come equipped with pumps or zoning valves to control the flow of hot water. You can use these systems to quickly and effortlessly regulate the room temperature. We want to delve deeper into the types of hydronic systems you will find out there. The three types of boilers you can use with a hydronic system are:

  • Gas-fired
  • Oil-fired
  • Gas, Kerosene, or Solar water heater

These are different heat sources, and you need to pick one based on how cold it gets where you live and how big your house is.

Other Types

In recent times, some highly energy-efficient floor heating systems are gaining prominence. Some of these include:

  • Geothermal In-Floor Heating Systems
  • Solar Radiant Heating Systems
  • Propane Underfloor Heating Systems

These heating systems are not commonly used, so we will not be focusing much on them in this guide. Since air-heated systems are highly inefficient and cost more than they are worth, we will be focusing on the other two types of floor heating systems for the remainder of this guide.

Cost

We will be focusing on two aspects – installation and operational costs.

Hydronic System

Installing a standard hydronic system will cost anywhere between $8 and $20 per square foot. The water heater or boiler adds to the installation cost to a great extent. Installing a water heater could cost between $770 and $1,450, whereas installing a boiler could cost $3,3500 to $7,000. So, it is safe to say that installing a hydronic system can be quite expensive.

The saving grace is a ridiculously low operating cost, thanks to the reduced running times.

Electric System

Installing a standard electric system will cost anywhere between $8 and $15 per square foot. What adds to the installation cost is the amount you would have to pay to the electrician for connecting it to your power supply.

Although installing an electric system costs less than installing a hydronic system, the operational costs are significantly higher because of higher electricity costs and longer operating times.

Other Types

  • Geothermal In-floor heating costs between $9,500 and $27,000 to install.
  • Solar radiant heating system costs around $8,000 to $19,500 to install.
  • Propane water heating costs $2,400 to $2,900 for the tank and $6 to $20 per square foot for installation.

Because they are highly energy-efficient, the operational costs of each of these heating systems are much lower than those of hydronic or electric systems.

Installation

Hydronic System

The two ways in which a floor heating system can be installed are wet and dry installation. It’s time to take a closer look at each of these installation techniques and help you decide which one is better for your home.

Wet installation relies on an indirect approach, wherein a thermal mass is heated first, and then the floor heats up from it. So, it involves installing a layer of a thin concrete sheet between the surface and the subfloor or slab of concrete underneath the subfloor.

Concrete retains heat, giving you a large and hot block under the floor. Its low conductivity and high density make it an ideal medium for wet installations.

On the contrary, dry installations do not require any concrete element as the tubes are placed directly below the subfloor. And then the flooring surface of your choice goes on top and heats up directly from the subfloor.

But which of these two is better? Wet installations need to run longer because it takes time to heat the thermal mass. Dry installations need to operate at very high temperatures because they do not come with a thermal mass that can store heat and radiate it. Moreover, you would have to install reflective insulation beneath the tubes in a dry installation to direct the heat upward.

Each installation technique has its pros and cons. So, you need to decide which one would be best for your home.

Electric System

Installing an electric system is more straightforward and time-saving than installing a hydronic system. You may choose to do it yourself or hire a contractor. All you need to do is roll out the heat-conducting mats, add a layer of self-leveling compound, and put the flooring material above it.

But when it comes to connecting the installed system to your power supply, we recommend seeking help from a qualified electrician. You cannot risk getting the wiring done incorrectly because that may lead to significant problems.

How Does It Work?

Hydronic System

Hot water flows through flexible plastic tubing installed beneath the floor. This tubing is made of PEX (cross-linked polyethylene), and it carries the hot water to specific areas to heat an entire room. But the tubing is only one of the main components of a hydronic system.

For it to function, several other components come into play, such as pumps, a heat source, controls, and manifolds. The heat source is typically a boiler or water heater, but energy-efficient sources like solar and geothermal may also be used.

The water is heated in the boiler, which is connected to a manifold. The manifold is a system of pipes that is responsible for channeling hot water from the source into different zones. It uses a recirculating water pump to do it. That brings us to the controls or thermostat, using which you may heat specific zones in the house.

Electric System

The heat-conducting mats used in an electric system are made of plastic and consist of several coils that are warmed using electricity. Unlike an electric stove or a space heater, the heating coils on these mats are made from resistance wire, usually nichrome or copper wrapper in a sturdy, water-resistant polymer.

These wired coils are zigzagged throughout the mat, and when it is connected to a power supply, these coils heat up quite fast. We have observed that most electric systems take about 30 minutes to one hour to heat up.

What are its pros?

Effortless

After you install a floor heating system, you won’t have to fret over maintaining it. When it comes to hydronic systems, all you need to do is a thorough annual check-up of the boiler. In fact, some of these systems are backed by an impressive 30-year guarantee.

Most of the modern floor heating systems give you the option of choosing a fully automatic or programmable thermostat. We recommend going for a programmable thermostat if you wish to heat your home at certain times and switch it off during the night.

Irrespective of the type of floor heating system you install, you can rest assured that operating it will be effortless.

Added Flexibility

Traditional radiators consume more energy yet fail to deliver optimal heating. But that’s not all; they also take up a lot of space and compromise your home decor. It cannot be denied that any conventional radiator cannot be placed in a way to look aesthetically appealing – it always feels out of place.

But when you switch to a floor heating system, you free up the entire space in your rooms as there are no radiators on the walls. Believe it or not, you can free up nearly 10% of the floor and wall space with a floor heating system.

That gives you unparalleled design freedom, allowing you to decorate the walls as you please. So, you can say goodbye to planning interiors around cumbersome radiators!

Versatility

One of the most significant reasons for us to recommend floor heating systems is the unmatched versatility they offer. You can practically use it under any type of floor finish, enabling you to opt for any theme or finish that would go with the overall interiors of your home.

Be it tile, stone, laminate, vinyl, carpet, or wood – you name it, and any floor heating system is compatible with it. The only thing you need to consider is the thermal conductivity of the floor finish material you wish to install. Ideally, you should go for a finish that offers excellent thermal conductivity because it would lead to more and quicker heat output.

Energy Efficiency

A floor heating system is considerably more energy-efficient than any traditional radiator. You would need to heat a conventional heater to a very high temperature, typically in the range of 150 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. On the contrary, floor heating needs to run at a temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit or less, depending on the finish of the floor.

Moreover, you need not worry about having any “cold spots” in the room. Unlike traditional radiators, floor heating systems provide warmth throughout the room. Cold spots effectively increase the energy requirement for heating an area.

To cut a long story short, floor heating systems usually provide an average savings of 15% on energy bills. And they don’t suffer from the downside of overheating or underheating.

Safety

If you have used a traditional radiator, you are privy to its safety issues. Even more so, if there are kids in your household. It tends to get too hot near these machines, and touching it could be quite dangerous. Also, some devices have sharp edges that may injure your younger ones.

But fortunately for you, all of these safety concerns evaporate with a floor heating system. It is hidden out of sight below the floor, so you need not worry about kids getting hurt by it in any way whatsoever.

Moreover, a floor heating system ensures minimum air movement, especially thermal air circulation. This leads to an oxygen-rich environment with fewer allergens and dust mites in the air.

What are its cons?

Installation Cost

First and foremost, installing a floor heating system is a costly affair. If we had to take an average estimate of the installation cost, it would likely be in the range of $8 to $20 per square foot. Installing hydronic systems are more expensive per square foot than electric systems, so you can expect them to be towards the higher end of that cost range.

And that’s not all; you would have to seek help from a professional electrician when it comes to connecting the system to your power supply. It can be somewhat tricky and time-consuming, so we recommend that you don’t DIY. The electrician would charge you anything between $200 and $300, depending on where you live and their expertise.

The total cost of getting a system installed and ready to use will be more than $500, going up based on the floor area and type of system you choose.

Electrician installing heating red electrical cable wire on cement floor in unfinished room. Renovation and construction, comfortable warm home concept.

Installation Time

If you are renovating a part of your home and want to install floor heating in a specific area, say the bathroom, you would opt for an electric system. You would need to apply a layer of self-leveling compound above the panels, which would usually need one or two days to dry completely. You cannot install the floor covering before that, so installing an electric system takes at least three days.

For those of you who plan to undertake an overall renovation or new building project, a hydronic system is ideal. It takes longer to install because of the tubing, boiler, and connection requirements. You can expect a hydronic system installation to go on for a week on average.

Additional Floor Height

Although it is not a significant concern for most homeowners, we must mention that installing a floor heating system increases the floor height. You can expect an extra half-inch or so to be added to the floor height, depending on the system you choose to install.

More often than not, you would be required to install insulation boards beneath the system to ensure that the heat goes up and not down. It is a must-have if you want to maximize efficiency, but it can add to the floor height by one inch on average.

If you do not want to add to the floor height, you could look at thinner alternatives. But the thinner a floor heating system gets, the costlier it will be.

Summing It Up

Now that we have reached the end of this guide, we hope it could answer most, if not all, of your burning questions about floor heating systems.

Several companies offer these systems, but we recommend checking out floor heating by heavenly heat.

Let us know in the comments section below what you thought of this guide.

Till next time!

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